How some amazing students defined my experience in Thailand

How some amazing students defined my experience in Thailand

Well the school semester is officially over! Ok, ok, it’s been over for a week and half now, but every time I tried to sit down and write about it, I found that I just couldn’t find the words. Even now, I’m having trouble articulating all of the hilarious, awesome, and crazy things that happened at UTW School. I’ll start by telling you about the students. The ones that made me laugh, the ones that inspired me, and the ones that made me want to pull my eyelashes out one at a time.

For the first couple weeks of school, I thought M2/1 would be one of my more difficult classes to teach. They were shy, not particularly attentive, and for whatever reason, forgettable. On Thanksgiving, I planned an entire day of Thanksgiving themed games and lessons to fight the homesickness that had been consuming me for several weeks. One game was to have a student leave the room while the others hid a small paper turkey. When the student returned, the class would gobble quietly if she were far from the turkey, and loudly if she were close. It was a silly game that didn’t have much to do with English, but I thought at the very least it would be funny to watch. The kids took to it instantly- discussing at length where to best hide the turkey and each time finding more and more creative places in our very bare classroom. Whenever the searcher was near the turkey the class would erupt into gobbles so loud that other teachers started peeking in to see what all the ruckus was about. By the end of class, I was laughing harder than I had in weeks. As I walked back to the English office, three girls rushed up to me gobbling, and said “Thank you for the game, teacher! It was so fun!” Playing games was the key, I realized, and I started eliminating direct teaching methods and using strategy, sentence building, and recall games to teach the concepts. Their confidence and their test scores began rising and by the end of the year, they were all exceling in both of the subjects I taught them. Their shyness had evaporated, and they had become my best and favorite class to teach. On the last day of class, they surprised me by arranging themselves into an “A” and yelling “Thank you teacher! Hope to see you again!” My heart melted and I knew that this class would be truly unforgettable. Not only had their infectious spirits pulled me out of the depths of homesickness, but seeing their gradual improvements in the classroom is something that all teachers strive for. They had a profound influence on my experience in Thailand- a profound influence on me, really- and I think I will miss them the most of all.

I’ve already described M1/1 a bit in a previous post, but it was in this class that I found some of my most unique and talented students. Bom, June, Tine, Nei, Aommy, Auto, Plammy- there really are too many to describe them here, so I’ll just tell you about my favorite, Seven. He loved games, made hilarious faces, and was always a decent student; but it wasn’t until our music unit that I realized there was something more to this kid. I assigned them a project on their favorite musician, and while the rest of the class babbled on about Katy Perry or EXO, Seven very seriously made his project about the Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House. He excitedly told me how much he loved classical music, and opened his music theory textbook as proof. As he flipped through the pages, proudly pointing to all the instruments he could play, I noticed that every single line of the book had been highlighted. “I want to be a conductor one day”, he explained simply, “so all of it’s important.” To say I was impressed would be a gross understatement. In a later lesson, I used sound clips to teach several of the orchestral instruments. This was obviously a cakewalk for Seven; however, the rest of the class struggled with anything that wasn’t a piano. He was never snobby about his abilities, though, and would carefully explain to his classmates how to differentiate between a trumpet and a trombone. Seven is obviously quite a special kid. That kind of focus and intensity is highly unusual for an 11 year-old boy, and his passion for music has left me deeply moved and inspired.

Finally there was M3/1. Man those kids were smart. Constantly engaged in the material, funny, curious, and just flat out GOOD. I felt the most like myself when teaching them. I was able to use the same teaching style I used with college freshmen in the States, except that these 16 year olds showed more enthusiasm for the subject than any student at VCU. On the last day of class, I did my favorite lab with them- DNA extraction from a banana- and I could see that they had the same love for scientific inquiry that I do. They made teaching easy and fun and the only other thing I can say about them is that in a few years, these kids will be publishing papers, becoming doctors, and making everyone proud.

Ok, so obviously not every class was as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” as I just described. On my first day in the science office I found out that M3/2 had the unfortunate (and l would later learn, justifiable) reputation for being “naughty” and “difficult”. Indeed, my co-teacher often walked around the class with a meter stick in hand. But even a good thwack wouldn’t deter them from talking ALL. THE. TIME. Worse than that though, was their general apathy toward school. They honestly didn’t care about English, or science, or anything really it seemed. With a look of perpetual boredom, even games and art activities failed to engage them. One group of boys, in particular, became my collective nemesis. They talked over me, they didn’t take notes, they were CONSTANTLY hitting each other, and by the end of class I would have a pile of confiscated phones, trading cards, and paper airplanes. I’d like to say there was a turning point in which they all became brilliant students. That I broke them down Sister Mary Clarence style, and after a montage of studying and singing Lean on Me, we all ended up holding hands in a circle shouting out science facts before the big national exam.

That didn’t happen.

By the end of the semester, they were still failing my tests and only a few of them seemed to even hear me say I wasn’t returning in the Fall. There was; however, one day in which I started to at least understand them. The topic was space exploration, which they were surprisingly interested in throughout the lesson. Even The Boys were taking notes (ok, they were mostly drawing the Challenger exploding, but close enough). Then, I dumped a bunch of recyclables on the front table and told them to build a rocket. They practically killed each other to get to the supplies. As I walked around, I saw every single student engaged in the activity- drawing blueprints, fighting over the tape, and eyeing up their empty water bottles for the most aerodynamic location to glue rocket fins. After 20 minutes, I took them outside, lined them up, and let them “launch”. And of course, whose rocket should fly the furthest, but The Boys. They were triumphant- high fiving, jumping up and down and excitedly showing me the secret to their success (a ball of wet paper towels strategically placed in the nose of the bottle). They had even made additional prototypes that they wanted to test out. I started seeing them not just as a big, talkative blob, but as kids. Kids that liked to build things. Having figured out their interests, they became much more tolerable to teach in the lessons that followed. Sometimes they were even kind of pleasant. (Don’t get me wrong though, by and large they were my worst class) It got me thinking: if you have it in your head that a class is shitty, then you will treat them like shit. Then they will continue to act shitty and the cycle just continues. Whether I realized it or not, my own biases toward the class were probably contributing to how aggravated I let them make me. Now, some kids just flat out suck, but you don’t ever know what their life is like outside of the classroom and their behavior might be a symptom of some larger problem that a teacher just can’t solve. But what I learned from them is that there is an opportunity for every student to be a good one if you just figure out the right way to teach them.

I obviously grew quite attached to these kids- even the terrible ones. In a few days, I’ll be seeing all of my favorites one last time in an English camp before I leave Uthai Thani for an undetermined amount of time. I’m not quite ready to describe all of the amazing people I’ve met here or all of the quirky little things that make Uthai Thani an incredibly special place- because that would that mean that it’s over and I have to say goodbye. For now I’m going to stop writing and go enjoy my last few days in this wonderful little town.

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